Sunday, 7 December 2014

On Being an "Impostor"...

I have always taken an interest in testing as an activity ever since I was given the testing role in my last job some years ago. I was the first dedicated tester the company had, and had to learn it from scratch without help for training. I managed to achieve good things in the role and set up some effective if crude processes although I did make some horrendous mistakes. l have spent time meeting other testers in industry meetups, read the blogs, followed the online discussions that interested me etc. However the more I read, the more I have realised how much I know about this area of IT- still very little. There is nothing like speaking to the highly skilled testers and studying more in the field to install a sense of humility and the idea that I have so much more to learn.

That isn't in itself a problem except that it does get me down that I haven't done or learnt more as a full-time tester, or that I still find it hard to think of myself as a "good" test analyst. I find every day something new to add to the pile of things to improve and learn. I like the challenge and stimulus but I seem to never catch up !. Is there a point in this industry when you can finally call yourself good or even adequate? Is it after X years of working or crossing off experience in enough strategies such as exploratory testing, static analysis, ATDD etc? After a good employment review, a good rep by a testing expert or an invitation to speak at a conference? After the nth ISTQB advanced/expert cert, maybe?

l recently came across the idea of the "Imposter" Syndrome, a common condition affecting high achievers where they cannot come to terms with and internalise their achievements and skills - thus believing themselves frauds and undeserving of their success. The term was coined for the first time back in 1978 and it is thought that up to 70% of all people will suffer from it at some point.

Left unchecked, this can have a damaging effect on one's career - Carol Pinchevsky in her article Impostor Syndrome in the Workplace—and a Few Ways to Overcome It describes them as follows -
"Charlie, who manages a team of developers, explained why he requested anonymity. “An implication that someone thinks of themself as incompetent or an impostor runs the risk causing other people to believe that as well. Needless to say, this can cause increased attention/lack of trust issues from bosses, increased friction with colleagues at the same level, and potentially morale issues from subordinates."
Noted Microsoft software engineer and blogger Scott Hanselman, in his blog post on the subject, describes his experiences affected by the Imposter Syndrome and states his mindset in overcoming it -
"The important thing is to recognize this: If you are reading this or any blog, writing a blog of your own, or working in IT, you are probably in the top 1% of the wealth in the world. It may not feel like it, but you are very fortunate and likely very skilled. There are a thousand reasons why you are where you are and your self-confidence and ability are just one factor. It's OK to feel like a phony sometimes. It's healthy if it's moves you forward."
While I don't imagine that a third party assessment of my skills and achievements would reveal me as a "high achieving" tester (whatever that means) I do find that I don't take as much pleasure in a job "well done", or a good review, or praise from a manager as I would like. Some months ago I went through a spell for a few months when I made sloppy errors and bad decisions in the workplace; where I felt that I could do nothing right. Instead of shrugging it off and thinking of ways of recovering quickly, I allowed myself to end up in a slump - for a short while under the impression that I had been "found out" as some awful tester and lead. For some weeks I went through the motions, fearful of making the next
 embarrassing error. Luckily, I was able to get out of the slump eventually with the help of one of my colleagues.

It is difficult, I find, to talk about issues of struggle or disappointment or failure (of confidence or otherwise) in the general company of other testers at conferences or testing events. Conversations at these events tend to be more about one's successes and advice than one's disappointments and concerns. It is equally hard discussing this with colleagues and managers, since being a test lead you are expected to be poised, confident and in control. There aren't many testing blog posts I come across where any sort of vulnerability is mentioned.

British journalist Oliver Burkeman mentions in his Guardian article on "imposterism" as he calls it that -

    "The only solution, many experts say, is for higher-ups to talk about their own insecurities much more. ("When people see those they respect struggling, or     admitting they didn't know everything when they started, it makes it easier to have realistic opinions of their own work," says the Ada Initiative, which     supports women in technology.)"

The inspiration for this blog came about a few years ago from a piece of advice from a notable testing expert who gave a talk in Sydney, and who out of respect shall remain nameless. After the talk I had a chat with him about his blog and expressed concern that if I wanted to write my own blog, I couldn't add much new to the body of testing knowledge. His advice, just writing about your thoughts and experience - the good and the bad - should be enough. Well here they are! Hopefully they may touch and relate with others who have felt the same in the past or feel the same now.

 Please let me know your thoughts...
I will be writing a follow up blog with my opinions and experiences about various approaches to combatting the Imposter Syndrome, bearing in mind that I do still have it to a degree. In the meantime, for further info on the Imposter Syndrome, the additional resources below could be useful -